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Mihalicz_Setting Context and BoundariesOne of the most important roles of management involves setting context and boundaries, yet there is often misunderstanding surrounding the topic. The tendency is for people to think that setting context for work results in a command and control structure where individuals are told what to do and when to do it. In this scenario, when things aren’t done exactly as intended, there is “heck to pay” in terms of not performing up to the standards of the job. In fact, setting context and boundaries results in exactly the opposite situation and is a key part of managerial effectiveness.

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Context Guides Decision-Making for Prioritizing Work

In every organization, there are priorities that define the workload; the problem, however, is that there are only so many hours in each day. If a manager works a full 8 hours, more than likely, they will be spending some or even most of their time doing something that is productive. Managers generally have more work than they can realistically handle in one day because work flows out into the future. As a consequence, there are timelines, horizons and milestones that set the pace, so everything does not have to be done today. But work does have to be initiated in the appropriate timeframe so that commitments and expectations can be met. So how can managers decide, from amongst the myriad of choices before them, how to allocate their time on any given day? To perform work effectively, there needs to enough context provided to guide decisions that are consistent and reflect the priorities of the organization overall.

How Do You Begin Setting Context and Boundaries?

  • Explain Your Plan and How it Links to the Organization’s Strategy and Strategic Objectives. As a manager who is accountable for setting context, how do you begin? After developing your own plan, it’s necessary to provide an explanation of what your plan entails with details for how it links back to the overall strategy of the organization. Then, within the context of that plan, it’s necessary to set expectations for subordinate managers so that they can create their own plans and deliverables to help you meet the objectives of your business unit or department.
  • Use Position Descriptions to Help Managers Use Their Own Judgment. The position description is another important part of setting context. It’s a tool for describing the purpose and main duties of a job, but it also gives context to managers about the ongoing duties of that job. Typically, a superior manager doesn’t have to say to a subordinate manager, “Do X, Y and Z today,” because the manager knows what to do. The context provided by the position description allows the manager to use his or her judgment and make decisions about what they should be working on and how much attention they should be devoting to certain aspects of their job.
  • Organizational Policies Provide Boundaries. Every organization has policies and procedures in place for how work should be done. Policies are an important aspect of setting context because they provide the framework for work. In other words, they partly describe what the actual work is and they partly set boundaries. For instance, if I am accountable for marketing in my operations unit, most likely there is a marketing policy and a plan in place that sets standards for images, branding, font, and so on. The policy partly informs me about the job, but it also sets boundaries so that I know how to work within the framework and will not overstep my job by setting a new font or designing a new logo for the company.

Context Can Include Behavioural Expectations

Context can also cover off expectations with respect to on-the-job behaviours. Most managers have expectations that need to be defined. For example, most managers would like to know firsthand if a subordinate is going to miss a deadline rather than learning about it from their boss. But context always deals with expectations of a work nature, and does not include things like running personal errands or favours “for the boss”, which is inappropriate context to set for an individual.

Consequences of Not Setting Context and Boundaries

      1. Unclear or Incorrect Priorities. There are several unintended consequences of not setting context and boundaries. Unfortunately, these tend to be the normal state of management in most organizations. The truth is, most managers simply do not receive appropriate context for their work and as a consequence, their Subordinates do not understand how best to prioritize their time. While they know the basics of their job, they don’t know what is important and what can wait. As the Director of Marketing, you know you need to work on marketing, but if the Vice President of Marketing hasn’t sat down and talked about the vision, priorities and how they fit into the overall department and link to strategic objectives, then managers are left to make decisions based on judgment about how to get the work done.
      2. Missed or Duplicated Work. Without the appropriate context, it’s also easy to miss or duplicate work. In most organizations, many positions depend on others for success in their work. Whether it’s for providing data, coordinating details or collaborating, different people work together to create chains of work at all levels. One department makes the sale, another places the order, another manufacturers the product and yet another ships the product. If any one of those positions does not have the right context set for how their job fits into the system as a whole, the possibility for duplicating or missing work increases.

Setting context and boundaries is an instrumental part of managerial success. As a guide for decision making and prioritizing work, the right context and boundaries impact organizational effectiveness and can help managers ensure their time and the time of subordinates is spent in the most efficient way. Failing to set the appropriate context and boundaries has negative implications, resulting in unclear or wrong priorities, missed or duplicated work and a lack of coordination between departments.

This is Part 1 of a 5-part series which delves deeper intoThe 5 Requirements of Effective Managers“.